From Bowie to Kanye: Death of an Icon

Until June 23, when the UK decided to leave the EU, 2016 looked like it would be known as the year the celebrities died, one after the other, often unexpectedly.

A number of rock icons, David Bowie in January and then Prince in a lift at his Paisley Studios, among them. The very day Bowie died Julie Burchill wrote a piece criticising the ‘virtue sobbing’ over his shock passing by hangers on in the music industry. 

There was certainly an embarrassment of middle-aged broadcasters claiming to be Bowie fans in the days and weeks that followed. But there seemed to be something more going on. There was a more widespread mourning or something approximating it. Was this our Diana moment revisited? Was it Generation X’ers very publicly contemplating their mortality? Sting, with a new album to promote including a song responding to the deaths of his peers, reflected in a recent interview: ‘All of us, when we lose our cultural icons, are affected in a profound way because there’s a child in us who thinks they’re immortal’. 

Paul Morley, in his new biography The Age of Bowie, explains how in the seventies pop music had a ‘seductive, influential force’. Today it ‘is essentially part of the establishment’. The times are certainly a-changin’ when Bob Dylan receives the Nobel Prize for Literature; and Bowie gets his own commemorative Prom. Though I suspect this is more a case of the guardians of high culture having lost any sense of what it is they are guarding and why; than having any real regard for the work of the icons of the counterculture. After all, Strictly got itself a Prom too!

By comparison the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame looks conservative. That its 2017 nominees should only now include the 80s electronica of Depeche Mode (in addition to the seminal Kraftwerk), suggests the world of rock music is as dinosaur-like as ever. But as Paul Schrodt observes for Business Insider after seeing a father with his toddler at a Depeche Mode gig, even ‘the band that helped redefine rock in the 80s and 90s has literally become dad music’. 

According to Morley, ‘The music that began as an articulation of youth and a making up of the future is entering a definite twilight zone’. That’s not to say there aren’t exciting artists out there doing interesting, and sometimes daring and innovative things. It’s just that the same names keep coming up. If it’s not Jay Z or Beyonce, it’s Kanye West. In the latter’s case at least rightly so. Lou Reed, just a few months before he died, praised West’s then latest album, Yeezus. There’s Lady Gaga too. Andrew Unterberger, writing for Billboard, admits she is ‘no longer the ringleader that all look to for what comes next’ but still ‘the sense of possibility in pop’ that she inspired anew ‘is as vast as it’s ever been’. 

I hope he’s right. Closer to home the signs aren’t encouraging. There’s nothing original or daring about Robbie Williams singing “‘Aint no refutin’ or disputin’ – I’m a modern Rasputin’” but not, you understand, referring to the man the West loves to hate Vladimir Putin. And there’s Lily Allen of course, videoing herself crying in the Calais Jungle, and being rewarded with a fittingly gushing piece in The Guardian describing her as a ‘pop rebel’. Now that really is virtue sobbing. 


Dave Clements is chairing From Bowie to Bieber: What Makes a Music Icon? at the Battle of Ideas this weekend.

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